Preseason football will soon be underway, and with it comes the battle for starting and backup slots. Players who are on the bubble will be trying their hardest to impress, and the shortened offseason creates an extra sense of urgency.
Fresh off a 31-25 Super Bowl loss to the Green Bay Packers, there is a sense of urgency with the Steelers on two fronts. The first challenge is to remain competitive toward a Super Bowl run. The second challenge is to build for the future at a bargain.
It is important to point out that the Pittsburgh Steelers are a veteran team looking to make a return trip to the Super Bowl this season. A shortened camp puts added pressure on draft picks like rookie cornerbacks Curtis Brown and Cortez Allen to perform in a short time. A shortened camp also closes the window of opportunity for players like wide receiver Limas Sweed, who is on his last chance.
Therefore, one glaring unintended consequence of the lockout is not only the sense of urgency to make the team, but making the practice squad has an equal sense of urgency.
Long thought of as a consolation prize that affords undrafted rookie free agents and others the opportunity to learn a team system then eventually play in the NFL, the practice squad will now be a lifeline to many.
Based on what the Pittsburgh Steelers may need in the future, I picked out three potential practice squad gems based on camp reports. As roster decisions get closer, there will be tough cuts. These three gems—Mario Harvey, Jon Clay and Weslye Saunders—would be great picks for the practice squad.
Mario Harvey, ILB
At only 5'11", Mario Harvey is a little undersized at the inside linebacker position, but he has a great motor and is a good tackler. If he fails to make the special teams unit, Harvey would be a perfect candidate for the practice squad because of the ages of James Farrior and Larry Foote.
By all accounts this could be Farrior’s last year, and Foote could get expensive as the team seeks to re-stock the inside linebacker position in 2012. For this reason, Harvey is a prime candidate to park on the practice squad to later be worked in to the lineup backing up Lawrence Timmons and Stevenson Sylvester in 2012.
Jon Clay, RB
Fellow Rookie Baron Batch has really impressed in camp, so for Jon Clay to make the team, Mewelde Moore and Jonathan Dwyer will have to turn in performances that do not meet the coach Tomlin standard. Both players will have to do subpar to give Clay an outside shot of making the team.
Keeping a tough downhill running back in the fold is needed in the AFC North. The Steelers not only have to prepare for the AFC North in 2011, but for the realities of the AFC North as well. The division is tough on running backs. Any hiccup with the other backs can be covered in 2012, which makes Clay the perfect pick for the practice squad.
Weslye Saunders, TE
A broken foot hurt Weslye Saunders' draft stock in 2011. Thus far, based on camp reports, Saunders has good hands and provides another red zone target.
After losing Matt Spaeth to the Chicago Bears in free agency, the need for a strong blocking tight end has become elevated. The Steelers are still bringing tight ends in to training camp with a focus on blocking. If Saunders can impress during the preseason game in blocking, he has a good chance of making the team. If not, the practice team offers him the opportunity to learn under Pro Bowl tight end Heath Miller without the pressure, allowing the questions about the injury and conditioning to be answered over time.
Overall, Saunders is a great value pickup and, at a minimum, should remain in the Steelers' system.
Championship teams are not only built through the draft, coaching and strategic free agency, but also through leveraging talent on the practice squad for a year or two. Based on the 2011 draft crop and the future needs of the team, these three players offer a great picture of what the practice squad should look like in 2011.